Jeff Mangum

You had to be there. I’m just gonna put that out there right off the bat. On a night I never dared hope would live up to my expectations, I found those same expectations thoroughly obliterated by its emotionally wrought conclusion. Though I frequently traffic in musical superlatives, the English language simply cannot handle Jeff Mangum. He is its master, not the other way around.

But lest I put the cart before the horse, there is still the impromptu trio of Andrew, Scott and Laura to deal with. This motley assemblage of E6 lifers (Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter of Elf Power and Scott Spillane of The Gerbils and Neutral Milk Hotel) put a lovely, low-key spin on numbers spanning several of their disparate projects, and generally got an amped-to-11 crowd to settle down and ease into the night slowly. This turned out to be a very good thing, as walking into the 40 Watt and diving right into Jeff Mangum would’ve been something akin to running a marathon without stretching first. That is to say, a show of this magnitude needs a little warm-up fanfare.

When Mangum did emerge, he seemed almost not of this Earth. Neither uncomfortable nor wholly at ease, he almost never blinked, instead fixing his gaze on various points at the back of the club, and spoke just as rarely, rather choosing to let his music speak for itself. His exquisite, diamond-in-the-rough voice is his most powerful instrument, and even on beloved tracks like “King of Carrot Flowers†and “Aeroplane Over the Sea†(both of which one practically has to know by heart to pass the Athens’ citizenship test) his vocals soared easily above the joyous, united din of the sold-out crowd singing along. Though no “new†material was present in the set, Mangum did dust off “Little Birds,†a mythical nugget of Athens music lore that he played only a handful of times before his long hiatus, and has yet to record properly.

Though Mangum spent most of the night strumming his acoustic guitar solo in the middle of the stage, he was occasionally joined by his opening act cohorts, with Spillane and Carter providing sporadic horn punctuation, and the enigmatic Heather Macintosh making a surprise appearance on cello. By the time Mangum returned for a triumphant encore, the crowd was already all gasps and wonderment at the moving event that had just transpired before them. The only word for it is thankful. The audience had a communal, and profoundly touching air of thankfulness to them during that closing group-sing of “Aeroplane Over the Sea.†The room was packed to the rafters with breathlessly happy, almost relieved people; relieved, perhaps, at having just seen something they never thought they’d get the chance to see. And so, with that feeling still fresh in my heart, I can think of no better way to end this review than by saying thank you. Thank you, Jeff, for making the music that you do. Thank you for singing and playing for us, even when it’s hard for you. Thank you for coming back.